NEA Scout is an exciting new mission that was recently selected by NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) by a team from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Marshall Space Flight Center. This innovative, low-cost concept will map an asteroid and demonstrate several technological firsts, including being the first CubeSat to reach an asteroid.
Before sending astronauts to any new space environments, it is important to send robotic scouts to survey the destination and learn about the risks and challenges they may pose to future human explorers. Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout, will perform reconnaissance of an asteroid using a CubeSat and solar sail propulsion, which offers navigation agility during cruise for approaching the target. Propelled by sunlight, NEA Scout will flyby and observe a small asteroid (<300 feet in diameter), taking pictures and observing its position in space, the asteroid's shape, rotational properties, spectral class, local dust and debris field, regional morphology and regolith properties. NEA Scout's observations will directly assist in retiring the unknowns related to human exploration of asteroids and planetary small bodies. The data collected will enhance the current understanding of asteroidal environments and will yield key information for future human asteroid explorers. (NASA JPL)
This mission clearly doesn’t have the cachet of the trio of probes arriving at Mars this month or the idea of quantum space travel. But I’m intrigued by this next adventure in solar sailing. The Planetary Society is sharing lessons learned from their crowd sourced Light Sail 2 mission. I wrote about that mission back in July 2019. One thing discovered by Light Sail 2 was that atmospheric drag exists at 720 kilometers above earth. Even with that unexpected drag, the sail is still sailing the heavens far beyond its expected life.
The launch date for NEA Scout is set for 1 November this year. I look forward to seeing how this sail performs beyond Earth’s orbit. Perhaps the next Light Sail mission by the Planetary Society will place a solar wind propelled CubeSat into a high lunar orbit. That would be marvelous and eminently doable. I see sailing the solar winds as an excellent means of deep space exploration. Historically appropriate, I think.